The extraordinary phenomenon of fake news spread by Facebook and other social media during the 2016 presidential election has been largely portrayed as a lucky break for Donald Trump.
By that reckoning, entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers, opportunists in Tbilisi and California millennials have exploited social media algorithms in order to make money — only incidentally leading to the viral proliferation of mostly anti-Clinton and anti-Obama hoaxes and conspiracy theories that thrilled many Trump supporters. The Washington Post published a shoddy report on Thursday alleging that Russian state-sponsored propagandists were seeking to promote Trump through fabricated stories, independent of the candidate himself.
But a closer look reveals that some of the biggest fake news providers were run by experienced political operators well within the orbit of Donald Trump's political advisers and consultants.
Laura Ingraham, a close Trump ally currently under consideration to be Trump's White House press secretary, owns an online publisher called Ingraham Media Group that runs a number of sites, including LifeZette, a news site that frequently posts articles of dubious veracity. One video produced by LifeZette this summer, ominously titled "Clinton Body Count," promoted a conspiracy theory that the Clinton family had some role in the plane crash death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., as well as the deaths of various friends and Democrats.
The video, published on Facebook from LifeZette's verified news account, garnered over 400,000 shares and 14 million views.
Another LifeZette video, picking up false claims from other sites, claimed that voting machines "might be compromised" because a voting machine company called Smartmatic, allegedly providing voting machines "in sixteen states," was purchased by the liberal billionaire George Soros. Soros never purchased the company, and Smartmatic did not provide voting machines used in the general election.
One LifeZette article misleadingly claimed that the United Nations backed a "secret" Obama administration takeover of local police departments. The article referenced Justice Department orders that a select few police departments address patterns of misconduct, a practice that, in reality, long predates the Obama presidency, is hardly secret, and had no relation to the United Nations.
Another LifeZette article, which went viral in the week prior to the election, falsely claimed that Wikileaks had revealed that a senior Hillary Clinton campaign official had engaged in occult rituals. Ingraham's site regularly receives links from the Drudge Report and other powerful drivers of Internet traffic.
But LifeZette, for all its influence, pales in comparison to the sites run by Floyd Brown, a Republican consultant close to Trump's inner circle of advisers. Brown gained notoriety nearly three decades ago for his role in helping to produce the "Willie Horton" campaign advertisement, a spot criticized for its use of racial messaging to derail Michael Dukakis's presidential bid. Brown is also the political mentor of David Bossie, an operative who went to work for Trump's presidential campaign this year after founding the Citizens United group. In an interview this year, Brown called Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway a "longtime friend."
Brown now produces a flow of reliably pro-Trump Internet content through a company he owns called Liftable Media Inc., which operates a number of high-impact, tabloid-style news outlets that exploded in size over the course of the election. One of Brown's sites, Western Journalism, is the 81st largest site in the U.S. with 13 million monthly unique page views, according to rankings maintained by the site Alexa. Another, called Conservative Tribune, is the 50th largest site with over 19 million monthly unique visitors.
Brown's sites churn out bombastic headlines with little regard to the truth. One viral piece shared by Brown's news outlets claimed that President Obama had redesigned the White House logo to change the American flag to a white flag, "a common symbol for surrender, which has many people wondering if Obama was trying to secretly signal to America's enemies that he was surrendering." The Facebook post touted the article with the line, "We all know Obama hates the United States, but what he just did to the White House logo is beyond the pale."
As the fact-checking website Snopes was quick to note, it was no signal of surrender and the bleached white version of the White House logo, complete with a white flag, was not even an Obama creation. The white logo dates back to as early as 2003, under the Bush administration, which used it for official documents.
The Conservative Tribune and Western Journalism provide a steady stream of similarly deceptive, eye-catching headlines.